What a Catholic peace studies expert thinks is the way out of war in Gaza
As tensions mount across the Middle East because of the continuing bloodshed in Gaza, the remnant forces of the United States in Syria and Iraq have come under fire from militant groups in sympathy with Hamas. More than 50 U.S. service members have suffered what have been described as minor injuries in the rocket attacks. On Nov. 11, U.S. aircraft conducted the third in a recent series of raids on Iran-backed militants in retaliation—this latest U.S. strike on a training facility and a safe house was perhaps the most devastating, and likely produced casualties.
Mary Ellen O’Connell, a professor of law at the University of Notre Dame and of international peace studies at the university’s Kroc Institute, believes this tit-for-tat strategy is precisely the wrong response if regional de-escalation is indeed the desire of the Biden administration. “The airstrikes in Syria and Iraq by the United States need to stop immediately,” she said, describing them as “blatant violations of international law.”
If regional containment of the conflict remains a primary objective, she said, U.S. forces should refrain from military strikes outside acknowledged armed conflict zones. And, she said, the United States needs to be clear with Israel that U.S. assistance “is premised on Israel complying with international law across the board.”
An air strike on targets in Syria is precisely the wrong response if regional de-escalation is indeed the desire of the Biden administration.
But how to restore peace in Israel and Gaza after this historic outbreak of violence and mutual suffering? Dr. O’Connell said that it will take outside pressure on both parties. Israeli leadership seems determined—at least for now—to ignore a worldwide outcry over the human suffering it is creating in response to the Hamas attack on Oct. 7. And for its part, Hamas appears to be “in suicide mode.”
“So how do you draw people off, to stop thinking that their only possibilities are to become martyrs, [that] it doesn’t matter if they die or they take everyone in Gaza with them? Some of their supporters have to get through to them.”
The patrons of the combatants—the United States and Germany for Israel, and Iran and Qatar for Hamas, must pressure their clients to accept a cease-fire, she said. The agony at Al-Shifa Hospital in northern Gaza, where 36 infants cling to life after the hospital lost power to run their incubators, could prove a pivotal moment when maximum leverage can be brought to bear, according to Dr. O’Connell.
Even staunch supporters of Israel like U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged restraint as the suffering at Al-Shifa created headlines around the world. “The hospital must be protected,” the president said.
Patients and staff have endured for days without electricity and basic medical necessities as fighting raged around the hospital compound. The spectacle provoked a surge of negotiations in Riyadh, Doha and Cairo aimed at conflict pauses and hostage exchanges. On Nov. 15, I.D.F. soldiers seized control of Al-Shifa, searching for evidence of a Hamas presence inside and beneath the facility.
How to restore peace in Israel and Gaza now after this historic outbreak of violence and mutual suffering? It will take outside pressure on both Israel and Hamas.
What in the end puts a stop to conflict is “always a negotiation,” Dr. O’Connell said. “It’s always trusted partners who come in.”
Over the long term, however, in Gaza and other hotspots in the Middle East like northern Iraq and Syria, peace will be the outcome of processes that require time and patience. Dr. O’Connell called “good governance” the real solution to the problem of terrorism because it “builds an economy where young people have a job, [where they] have a chance for a future.”
She lays partial blame for the violations of international norms evident in the Hamas assault on southern Israel and Israeli tolerance for high numbers of noncombatant casualties in its Gaza campaign on the example set by the United States. During its prosecution of the so-called war on terror and in follow-up campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan that effort set in motion, violations of international law in “targeted killing of all kinds” by U.S. forces became routine, she charged.
The United States has created a template for such military strikes, she said, deploying dubious appeals to international law to rationalize use of force. The strategy, she said, has been demonstrably counterproductive. “If we need to carry out this kind of warfare for 22 years, it’s obviously not effective,” Dr. O’Connell said.
Not only has the approach “not suppressed terrorism,” she said, it has “helped create a metastasizing new set of virulent organized armed groups across the north of Africa, into Somalia and other places,” including “the great catastrophe in Afghanistan.”
What in the end puts a stop to violence is “always a negotiation. It’s always trusted partners who come in.”
It has also significantly weakened esteem for the international rule of law related to human rights and war-making, according to Dr. O’Connell, connecting that decline to the utter disregard for norms demonstrated by the Russian Federation in Ukraine. “People don’t even understand anymore what the provisions of the U.N. Charter are, and they don’t take them seriously anymore because of these constant attempts at justifying [use of force] using looser and looser arguments under international law.”
The best sociological research on reversing the diminishing adherence to norms like the Geneva Conventions and international humanitarian law, according to Dr. O’Connell, calls for “a leading sovereign state modeling norm compliance.” She hopes the United States may accept that role.
Specialists on peacemaking like Dr. O’Connell could be forgiven if they grow frustrated that their expertise is only sought when conflicts turn hot or when the persisting geopolitical insistence on a “realist” use of force fails yet again. But Dr. O’Connell said she remains undeterred.
“I was five years old when ‘Pacem in Terris’ was drafted,” she said. “I’ll never forget being at Mass at St. Hilary’s parish in Chicago when it was presented to us and hearing that the pope wanted us to be people of peace. This has been my vocation, and you don’t give up on your vocation.”
She also found reinvigoration recently in “two incredible gifts.”
U.S. strategies during the so-called war on terror have significantly weakened the international rule of war related to human rights and war-making.
“In August and September, I went to Ukraine and taught international law and the use of force.” Kyiv was regularly targeted during her visit, but her students “couldn’t get enough” of the material discussed in her classes. “They know what it is [like] to be under constant attack, to see their friends die because a state wouldn’t obey some of the most ancient and revered principles.”
A month later, at a conference on autonomous weapons in Rome, she stayed at the Santa Marta guesthouse where Pope Francis also resides. After a long day of lectures and discussions and hearing “the usual arguments from military people” about why the United States needs advanced weapons to ensure security, she stopped for a final dinner at the guest house, more than a little worn out by the experience.
“And in came Pope Francis. It was 7:30 at night, and he was in his wheelchair with two priests, and he got out of his wheelchair—I’m happy to say, on his own—and had this simple, humble meal, and he was in deep conversation with these two priests.” A few days later the pope was in France, pleading for the lives of migrants being lost on the Mediterranean.
“He is 86 years old; he is surrounded by enemies. He had just gotten back from Mongolia. He lives in this simple guesthouse, eats its simple food, and he flies off, praying and working for peace, for the protection of the environment, for all these basic norms that we used to understand and share. And [I thought], you know, ‘How can I get tired?’”